Friday, April 20, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - PC Review

I started this game about a week after it released, when a friend got me a copy for my PC.  He knew what a fan I was of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - which was one of my first games for the Xbox 360 and opened me up to a whole new approach to RPG games.  I have not been a long-time fan of the series, however.  I have never played the earlier games in the series, but even then I knew that the introduction of dragons to the series was a huge move for Bethesda.


I easily sunk over a hundred hours into Oblivion, and I had little doubt that I would do more of the same with Skyrim - and that suspicion of mine proved true as I only just beat the game for the first time.  My son does not play it nearly as much as me, but he is about halfway through the storyline.  Of course, the storyline is really only a suggestion.  I spent less time on advancing the actual storyline than the rest of the game during my time with it.

When I described Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning recently, I decided to use one word to sum up my experience with the game.  In that instance I chose the word: dense.  There was a ton to do in Amalur, and a lot of places to visit.  On the surface, there are enough similarities to Amalur and Skyrim coupled with their relatively close release dates that comparisons were bound to be made between them.  However, I feel as though these are completely different kinds of games, and if I was going to use dense for Kingdoms of Amalur, I would use the very contrary term:

Expansive


See, in Kingdoms of Amalur there is a ton to do, but it feels very packed in.  Cities feel small.  Even the most open of regions are actually pretty corridors with restrictive barriers.  I did not find that a problem - in fact I enjoyed Amalur quite a bit.  It was however, a very different creature than Skyrim - and that is both a compliment and a criticism because there are things both titles do very well, and then other things that one will do better than the other.  But enough about Amalur - if you are reading this review you are likely trying to glean my thoughts on Skyrim, so let's have at them.



Graphics - 9:

As I explored the land, I kept seeing scenes that reminded me of fantasy book covers or artwork I had seen.  Obviously the more powerful your computer, the higher the level of detail you can see in the environment, but even at lower settings the game is far from ugly.  And with the settings turned up?  The landscapes are sometimes breathtaking, often reminding me of paintings.  Is the engine flawless though?  No, far from it.  Oddities creep up in character movements which sometimes look a bit forced or stiff, and it is not uncommon to see characters moving just a bit... well, like they are glitching if they get caught moving around on their environment.  Faces are a huge improvement over Oblivion, but still sometimes seem a bit off to me.  Still, for me all of that goes away when I see a dragon soaring toward me or I stand near a beautiful waterfall with the sun just right in the horizon.  In those moments I simply lose myself in the experience.

Hence all the pictures in this review.


Sound and Music - 10:

Not all of the voice acting is amazing, but there is certainly a fair percentage that is.  Characters convey emotions very effectively most of the time.  The sound is actually handled very well also.  Because this is an action oriented RPG, and one of your perspectives for viewing the world is through first-person, I can appreciate the intelligent designs that let me listen in and use those audio clues to let me know where that archer is at, or that a wild critter is heading right toward me.

And then there is the Music.

For starters it inspires so much creativity from others, such as these two wonderful covers I discussed awhile back.  Oblivion was one of my favorite music soundtracks in a long time when it came out.  Once again Jeremy Soule crafted a beautiful, moving soundtrack for Skyrim that I love to listen to, even when I'm not playing the game.  I especially enjoy it when I am reading, writing or working on game designs of my own for inspiration.



Gameplay - 7:

Going to smack Skyrim a bit harder than most here I think.  Combat is not my favorite.  All too often you get into this odd pattern of lunge forward, strike, block or step back.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  There are definitely things you can do to vary it up, such as using magic or ranged weapons and stealth attack are plenty entertaining as well.  Still, the combat does have a tendency to feel a bit clunky.  Since I was on a PC, I found the game much more enjoyable with a controller than using the keyboard and mouse interface.  I realize this might sound strange to PC heavy gamers, but I prefer a controller to mouse/keyboard input on most games, even shooters - and that was especially true with Skyrim.


The other thing I have to pick on this game for is a common complaint for Bethesda's titles - bugs.  There are so many bugs.  Bugs absolutely destroyed my experience with other games like Fallout: New Vegas, but that is what this review is - a collection of thoughts about my experiences and while I definitely saw some odd things pop up during my time playing Skyrim, I never encountered anything game-breaking either.

I know the skill menu is hit and miss for some people, but I liked it.  I had little difficulty in navigating it, and I found it to be aesthetically pleasing as well.  Inventory management was not terrible by any means, and considering how much stuff you acquire, that is a blessing in and of itself.  The crafting systems were decent, but kind of silly at the same time.  I enjoyed improving my blacksmithing, but often those systems were exploitable (iron daggers, anyone?) when some basic checks for level or quality of the item made would have made a lot more sense.  Still, the leveling system in general worked well for me overall, and certainly felt better than Oblivion's 'hop around everywhere you go' one.


Intangibles - 9:

Wow, there is a lot to do here.  But you never feel cramped.  Final Fantasy XIII used a series of corridors to move you along a linear path.  Amalur had larger corridors, but essentially that was what the world was made up of - sections that interconnected.  Skyrim is this huge, living, breathing world with so much scope to it that I probably spent most of my first twenty or thirty hours doing nothing but side quests and exploration.  The main story would be there for me later, I figured.

There are so many great moments - where you complete a quest, or you set your house up just the right way, or you stand atop a high perch and look out over the majestic landscape - and fighting dragons (at least early on) was every bit as exciting an experience as advertised (even if later in the game it did not produce anywhere near the same thrill for me).  There is so much to see and do that it feels much more like a living, breathing world than most other games can ever hope to be.


Overall - 8.75:

I generally don't get into Game of the Year discussions, because so many people look for different things in different games.  Even weighing titles like Mass Effect 3, Amalur and Skyrim can demonstrate how a single genre can blur lines with other genres and I believe this is a very exciting time in the video game industry personally.  I will say that I enjoyed my time with Skyrim, it was among my favorite games I have played over the last year or so, and I would have no problem at all recommending it to my friends who enjoy RPG games.  It would have been very easy for Bethesda to simply expand upon what Oblivion did with few changes and no doubt it would have sold well, but there were enough innovations to the formula to make Skyrim feel like a bigger, better game than its predecessor and I for one am very excited to see what Bethesda will do next.